Category: Michael Govan

BP’s Oil Slick: LACMA Woes

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

If you think the eerie green photograph shown at left is just another postmodern artwork to be found in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), then you are not too far off the mark. While the weird image was certainly not conjured up by one of today’s fashionable art stars, it is in a manner of speaking, one of LACMA’s most recent acquisitions, and it has been supplied by one of the museum’s leading benefactors.

In March of 2007, LACMA’s Director Michael Govan struck a deal with oil giant BP (British Petroleum). Govan agreed to accept a $25 million “donation” from BP that would help in the renovation of the museum, and in return the entry way on LACMA’s newly expanded campus would be christened, “The BP Grand Entrance.” At the time Govan touted BP as a “green” company, telling the Los Angeles Times that he accepted the oil company’s money because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy (….) We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Since that March 2007 deal I have unremittingly covered the oily relationship between LACMA and BP – and the story only continues to worsen. The above photograph is not part of LACMA’s collection, though it could be included in an exhibit that explores just exactly what a “commitment to sustainable energy” means to the museum and its director. In actuality the photo was taken by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it shows a broken underwater oil pipe that is presently spewing over 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day. That particular oil drilling operation gone awry is run by none other than LACMA’s major patron, British Petroleum. LACMA has not acquired a work of art, but the stain of collaborating with one of the planet’s most rapacious polluters.

You may have heard about the tragic fire and explosion on the huge Deepwater Horizon oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico, if not, ask Michael Govan about it. The oil rig was owned and operated by the Swiss based firm Transocean; however, its operations were under lease to British Petroleum. Transocean was drilling an exploration well for BP when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank on April 26, 2010 – killing eleven workers. The capsized rig, with a platform larger than a football field, broke away from the pipe that connected it to the oil well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface; the broken underwater drilling infrastructure is now pouring out 1,000 barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of this writing, the growing oil slick covers well over 3,360 square miles of ocean, and there are fears the massive slick will affect the coastal communities of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

This photo from the US Coast Guard shows part of the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. The photo was taken soon after the April 22 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leased and run by BP. Photo - AFP/USCG/Elizabeth Bordelon.

This photo from the US Coast Guard shows part of the growing oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. The photo was taken soon after the April 22 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leased and run by BP. Photo - AFP/USCG/Elizabeth Bordelon.

BP’s enormous oil slick, less than 36 miles from the Louisiana coast, is directly threatening the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Located off the coast of Louisiana, Breton Refuge is the second oldest wildlife refugee in the U.S. Founded in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is accessible only by boat and it provides habitat and colonies for over twenty-three species of seabirds and shorebirds. Delta Refuge is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Established in 1934, its 49,000 acres provides habitat to huge numbers of fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. If the oil slick were to reach these nature reserves, the result would be a catastrophe of unparalleled dimension. As it is, BP’s oil slick will cause tremendous devastation to the fragile marine ecosystem found in the Gulf of Mexico, and untold numbers of fish, birds, mammals, and crustaceans that live in the Gulf will die.

The Gulf of Mexico oil slick confirms BP actually stands for “Big Profits” and not “Beyond Petroleum.” On April 27, as the U.S. Coast Guard struggled to contain the ecological disaster in the Gulf, BP posted a huge surge in its earnings – a phenomenal increase in profits from last year’s $2.39 billion to this year’s $6.08 billion. Now that BP is glutted with oil and flush with cash, perhaps LACMA’s Michael Govan can ask them for another “donation.” I am sure BP could use an excellent public relations gimmick right about now, so I would like to suggest that LACMA construct “The Grand Deepwater Horizon Exit Gate” as part of their new BP financed campus.

While Govan and BP run for political cover in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, they will not be alone in doing so. Just days after millions of people in the U.S. celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, what is left of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is gushing crude into the Gulf in a slick so massive it is larger than the state of Rhode Island. NASA has photographed the gigantic slick from space. And what is the response from President Obama, especially since he has announced a plan to open over 500,000 square miles of U.S. coastal waters to oil drilling – including a vast area in the Gulf of Mexico that has never before been drilled? On April 23 President Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs alleged there is no reason to give up plans to expand offshore oil drilling, declaring; “In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last.” Perhaps when Michael Govan leaves LACMA in disgrace, he can get a job in the Obama administration.

_____________________________________________________________

 On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition (www.greenpeace.org.uk) to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition (www.greenpeace.org.uk) to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

Updates, May 20 through 29, 2010: On Saturday, May 29, the Associated Press reported that BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles admitted that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the oil leak was a complete failure. Suttles commented, “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”

On May 27, national and international media, taking information from BP and the Obama administration’s U.S. Coast Guard, reported that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the torrent of oil from gushing into the ocean was a “success” and that “industry and government engineers had pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well.”

Yahoo News and CBS News both reported that at President Obama’s May 28th press conference on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, an event meant to show the president was “in control” of response efforts, BP bused in hundreds of temporary workers to clean-up oil off the beach. After Obama left the scene, BP dismissed the workers.

May 27, national and international media report the U.S. government’s pronouncement that the BP catastrophe is the worst eco-disaster in U.S. history – with U.S. Geological Survey scientists calculating that the broken BP pipeline is spewing more than one million gallons of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, the gusher will no doubt become the worst eco-disaster in world history. Starting on May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition to redesign the BP corporate logo.

Updates, May 15, 2010: The U.K. Telegraph reported that President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency gave BP permission to use massive amounts of a chemical dispersant underwater, despite there being no scientific knowledge regarding the ecological dangers posed by such a huge application of the toxic chemical known as “Corexit.” The New York Times reported that to date, BP has applied more than 400,000 gallons of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico, and it has 805,000 gallons of the chemical on order. The New York Times also revealed that “of the 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective” than Corexit. The toxicity of the 12 alternatives was in some cases “10 or 20 times less” than Corexit. Nalco manufactures Corexit, and that company’s current leadership includes executives from BP and Exxon - LACMA and its director Michael Govan continue to remain silent regarding their ongoing financial relationship to BP.

UPDATES, May 5 through 14, 2010: A National Day of Protest against BP was called for May 12, 2010, with protests held in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York City - Both NPR and the New York Times have reported that scientists are saying the BP broken rig is spilling, not 5,000 barrels a day, but up to 100,000 barrels a dayPolitico.com reported that President Obama has “received a total of $77,051″ from BP over the last 20 years, making him “the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money.” -  McClatchy Newspapers reports that “Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.”

[ Friends of the Earth are asking people to sign their online petition calling for President Obama to abandon his plans for expanded offshore oil drilling. ]

The LACMA Train Wreck

Train - by Koons

"Train" - Jeff Koons. Work in progress. The Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, has compared the $25 million 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 23, 2009, Bloomberg News filed a report titled “Koon’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by LACMA Shortfall.” The story covers the now delayed collaboration between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and artist Jeff Koons, whose monumental “sculpture” titled Train, LACMA continues to insist will be erected at the museum’s entrance.

With a projected price tag of $25 million, the work by Koons - if undertaken - will be one of the most expensive public art projects ever to be mounted. However, the collapsing economy continues to incapacitate museums and galleries across the U.S., and LACMA is no exception.

In a Nov. 21, Los Angeles Times article titled “Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hard hit by recession“, writer Mike Boehm reported that the museum’s endowments and donations shrank from a total of $129.7 million in 2007-08, to $29 million in 2008-09, a stunning loss of over $100 million!

As a result LACMA has pushed back plans to build and install Koons’ Train until 2014 at the earliest, as the museum simply does not have the required financial resources to construct the ridiculous thing.

The Bloomberg article quoted LACMA’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, Barbara Pflaumer;

“We wouldn’t do it unless someone funds it; someone has to write us a check. This is a very tough economy. (….) The train is something on our to-do list. There’s no question we’d like it to happen. It’s a question of whether we can make it happen.”

Some things should just not be made to happen. On more than a few occasions I have inveighed against Koons and the Director of LACMA, Michael Govan, so I will not bore you stiff by reiterating critiques already made - though a reading of past fulminations would provide some necessary background to this story. Mr. Govan has persistently worked at making the Koons project a reality, but one really has to ask - why? Is it that Govan, LACMA’s Board of Directors and wealthy contributors, actually believe Koons to be the preeminent artist of our time? I shudder to think that is so, but no other conclusion seems possible.

Considering LACMA’s shaky finances during this exceedingly difficult economic period, not to mention the hard luck millions of Americans have fallen upon - who can sympathize with squandering so much money on something so frightfully banal and stupefyingly crass? That LACMA intends to commission and install Koons’ Train to the tune of $25 million, is analogous to proposing that our great libraries be emptied of the classics and filled up with romance novels, pulp fiction, and comic books.

There is another aspect to this tale. On a surface level the Koons Train sculpture bears a close resemblance to two other train artworks; these were created in Scotland and Brazil respectively, well before Koons drew up his Train proposal for LACMA. The Scottish and Brazilian train projects are little known in the United States, so a close examination is in order. Comparing the three train projects, one is not so much left with the suspicion that Koons simply lifted his idea from others, as one is given insight into just how much Koons’ Train is totally uninspired and lifeless.

Straw Locomotive - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

"Straw Locomotive" - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

Scottish artist George Wyllie produced a public art installation and performance piece in 1987 titled, Straw Train. Wyllie paid tribute to the history of the Scottish Railway industry by building a full-sized steam engine locomotive out of straw. The work of building an accurate replica train from straw took place at the abandoned Hyde Park Works in Springburn, Scotland, where the nation’s first private locomotive company built steam engine trains for export and domestic use. At its peak the massive train factory covered 60 acres, employed 8,000 workers, and constructed 600 trains a year.

Upon completion, Wyllie’s Straw Train was paraded through the streets in a public procession that followed the route real engines would have taken as they were transported to the shipping docks at the Finnieston port. Once at the port, Wyllie’s Straw Train was suspended from the famous Finnieston Crane, a prominent landmark in Glasgow, Scotland, celebrating the city’s industrial heritage. The Finnieston Crane once loaded untold numbers of the massive locomotives produced at the Hyde Park Works onto transport ships for export. Wyllie’s whimsical sculpture remained suspended from the massive crane for several months as part of the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988 – attended by some 3 million people.

Following the Glasgow Garden Festival, Straw Train was transported back to the Hyde Park Works in Springburn, where it was set ablaze in a public performance. As flames consumed the dry straw, the sculpture’s metal armature was exposed. When the straw was reduced to ashes and only the metal framework remained, one could plainly see that the artist had incorporated a giant metal question mark into the structure – the artist’s emblematic signature but also a query as to the fate of Scotland’s industrial past.

Straw Train had great resonance for the people of Scotland, making direct reference to their proud history and accomplishments even as the artist posed relevant questions about capitalist economic restructuring and the resultant deindustrialization of society. Conversely, Koons’ work is altogether bereft of social import. It fails to challenge or advocate and does not lead to any meaningful introspection, it has no connection to history; in fact it makes absolutely no claims about anything whatsoever, it simply exists, like the faux Matterhorn Mountain at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Koons said of his project; “It’s very visceral. It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life.” Just what exactly does that mean? Such a statement could be used to describe a pile of junked automobiles - if one’s intent was obfuscation. And what can be said of those at LACMA who find profundity in Koons’ gobbledygook explication?

Train at the entrance to Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The train at the entrance of Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The popular theme park Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) in Canela, Brazil, incorporates a life-sized steam engine train into its entry way in much the same manner that LACMA looks forward to doing - although only L.A.’s museum has pretensions of presenting “high art.”

Canela is a small picturesque city situated in the mountainous region of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Mundo A Vapor is a charming theme park that presents the history of the steam engine, from toys and crafts to productive technology and train transport – it offers informative displays and fun for the whole family, including a miniature train kiddy ride. The theme park is internationally famous for its unconventional entrance façade which makes use of a full-scale replicated steam engine locomotive; a life-size reconstruction of the 1895 train crash in Montparnasse, Paris. The train’s steam powered whistle actually screams on the hour as the train’s chimney discharges billowing clouds of steam to the great delight of tourists, who crowd around the locomotive to take still photos and shoot videos (one such amateur video can be viewed on YouTube).

Chances are only a handful of people know, or care about, the name of the architectural engineer commissioned to design the entrance façade at Mundo A Vapor, and it is my educated guess that the professional was not awarded $25 million. It never occurs to the jovial tourists flocking around the steam engine behemoth - marooned at the theme park doorway like a beached whale - that the tableau was designed by a specialist; that detail is simply irrelevant. To the cheerful multitudes the train façade offers only a fantastic setting for photographs, nothing more, and that is how it should be seen. If those gathered around the train were told that the locomotive was in fact a majestic sculpture of paramount importance, created by a modern master of unsurpassed vision, and that the objet d’art was worth ten of millions of dollars, they would most likely laugh out loud at the preposterous tall tale.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

So then what precisely is the difference between the locomotive at Mundo A Vapor and Koons’ Train? Aside from the fact that the Brazilian train does not spin its mighty iron wheels as the LACMA train is being designed to do, the one and only distinction is that LACMA’s Train is linked to brand Koons; declared by inordinately powerful individuals with exceedingly bad taste to be the finest high-end commodity available on the “art market” today. Museum culture is undergoing a transformation where a sham populism guided by market forces is quickly becoming the norm. Some museums are developing into zones for the appreciation of the kitsch, shallow, and gaudy; there is no better example of this than the relationship LACMA has cultivated with the likes of Koons.

The train at Mundo A Vapor is a real crowd pleaser to be sure, and undoubtedly millions have stood beside it to have their pictures taken, but does anyone think of it as a magnificent artwork? Would anyone in their right mind say of the train; “It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life”? Well… perhaps some would, just as they might say the same thing about that thrilling roller coaster ride at Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain - but that does not add up to momentous art or a thoughtful art experience.

LACMA’s $25 Million Choo-Choo Train

The March 2009 edition of The Art Newspaper reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is funding the building of a monumental sculpture by postmodernist artist Jeff Koons - at a cost of $25 million. Titled Train, the “sculpture” consists of an actual 70-foot long steam locomotive hung from an immense 161-foot construction crane. If the project actually proceeds, it will become, in the words of The Art Newspaper - “the most expensive artwork ever commissioned by a museum.” It should be restated once again that President Obama’s economic stimulus bill contains $50 million to service the needs of art institutions for the entire United States of America.

In my April 2007 article, Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New, I detailed the collaboration between LACMA and Koons when it was merely at its formative stage. At the time, the Annenberg Foundation provided LACMA and Koons with funds for engineering studies concerning the feasibility of such an edifice. As it turns out, The Art Newspaper reported; “LACMA has already spent about $1.75 of $2 million pledged by trustee Wallis Annenberg for preliminary studies.” In my ‘07 article I wrote:

“Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, ‘A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.’ There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think!

(….) Koons supposedly represents the ‘best and brightest’ from the national cultural scene - a sad ‘fact’ I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; ‘Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”

In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Modern art enthusiast and critic, Waldemar Januszczak, wrote an article for the TimesOnline of the U.K., in which he describes his waning love affair with postmodern art. He was specifically writing of the U.K’s conceptual Young British Artists and the Tate Modern, but his words can just as easily apply to LACMA, Koons, and postmodern art in general. Significantly, Januszczak took great pains in his article to describe himself as a booster of contemporary art, writing that “it’s been my life, my career, my sustenance” and that when he offers a critique - “you can be confident it’s serious.” Januszczak wrote:

“What we have here today is a situation that parallels events in France in the 1860s, when the Paris salon became too powerful and the impressionist revolt needed to happen to revive art. The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear.

(….) Just as the Paris salon favoured the conceptual over the actual - pretentious history painting over vivid snapshots of everyday life - so the Tate supports art that imagines it is on a higher plane than the everyday.”

It is entirely appropriate for Januszczak to compare today’s postmodern art elites with the entrenched French Academy of the 1860s and its attempts to suppress Impressionism. But LACMA’s patronage of Koons reminds one not so much of the French Salon as it does the insensitivity and pitilessness of France’s Ancien Régime just before it was overthrown by the revolution of 1789. At the same time as American museums layoff staff and cancel exhibits, as galleries go out of business and artists struggle to stay alive, while millions across America lose their jobs, homes, or both - LACMA fritters away tens of millions on what can only be seen as a monument to triviality. How many thousands of artists could LACMA commission with $25 million? How many art workshops could it subsidize in underserved communities? Let them eat cake indeed.

On March 4, 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of its research on artist unemployment rates, a report that concludes joblessness is not only skyrocketing for artists, but that the artist workforce has “contracted” and that “artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers.” The NEA found that in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 129,000 artists were unemployed nationally, a 63% increase from the previous year. While the NEA report did not give a state-by-state breakdown on unemployment rates for artists, a previous NEA study found that more artists live in California than in any other state of the union (some 140,620 working artists), even ranking above New York, which came in fourth. It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that there are huge numbers of artists now unemployed in the state of California.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California is presently last when it comes to contributing to arts funding. The national average for state arts funding comes to $1.35 per capita - but California’s funding for the arts comes to a trifling 15 cents per citizen each year. The California Arts Council (CAC) is the state’s arts policy-setting agency, administering grant programs and directly supporting arts programs for all of the state’s citizens. It has a budget of only $5.6 million to administrate cultural affairs for the entire state of California.

A February 28, 2009 article by the Los Angeles Times reported that the unemployment rate for workers in the state of California has reached 10.1%, the state’s highest jobless rate in twenty-six years. Statistics from the Employment Development Department of the State of California show that as of January of this year, 1,954,900 Californians are out of work, with 537,000 now jobless in Los Angeles. Those are the official statistics, but how many Californians are underemployed or have simply given up looking for employment? The aforementioned Los Angeles Times piece quoted one economist as saying, “California is hemorrhaging faster than the U.S. economy.”

In light of these facts, a price-tag of $25 million for the LACMA-Koons Train boondoggle verges upon lunacy, and it most assuredly is an indication of an arts institution profoundly out of touch with the realities lived by the vast majority of the working population of California and the nation. I should reiterate here that the base salary of LACMA director Michael Govan is $600,000 while the total annual compensation for a sitting president of the United States is $400,000.

Arts professionals have some soul searching to do. It is transparently obvious why a greater part of the U.S. population feels alienated from and at variance with contemporary art. In short the public’s gut reaction that art has nothing to do with them and that it is only for the privileged few, is in fact an astute observation based upon the circumstances before us. It is high time that American artists begin to create the new works and institutions that will help free the public of such an erroneous opinion.

Armed Guards at LACMA

Armed guards carrying clubs and loaded guns now patrol the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the latest addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. No less than three armed guards have been seen patrolling the BCAM, with one security officer assigned to watch over Damien Hirst’s installation Away from the Flock - a dead lamb pickled in formaldehyde that Eli Broad purchased in 2006 for $3.38 million.

The armed guards do not patrol any of LACMA’s other galleries, where the museum’s invaluable collection of masterworks by artists from around the world and throughout time are housed; only the pricey postmodern collection of billionaire Eli Broad amassed under the BCAM rooftop are afforded protection by uniformed, gun-toting private security men. Is this part of the supposed “visionary leadership” provided by LACMA Director, Michael Govan?

The open presence of uniformed armed men in a major art museum is abhorrant and contradictory to the very spirit of art - there are certainly wiser and more effective ways of protecting museum collections than the filling of galleries with gun wielding sentries.

LACMA hired the armed guards from Inter-Con Security Systems, Inc., which in its own words is a “leading U.S. security company, providing a full range of physical security services to commercial and industrial customers on four continents. (…) Inter-Con has achieved a position of international leadership in the field of diplomatic security provided to the U.S. and foreign governments.” Once can only imagine what this means, since Inter-Con does not provide a list of its clients. I am not the only one to be annoyed by this development. In his article, Under the gun is no way to view art, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight writes;

“It’s hard to imagine almost any scenario in which an art museum guard might shoot someone, but that bizarre thought keeps bumping around in your brain at BCAM. Needless to say, it has a less than salutary effect on the art experience. As a rule, art museums don’t discuss their security precautions. For obvious reasons, they prefer them to be as unobtrusive as possible. That institutional reticence is what makes this glaring aberration so weird. Visual intimidation by gun- and baton-toting guards shouts that security is a pressing issue — and that BCAM requires more than any museum in town.”

Having set the precedent of introducing uniformed armed security personnel into the galleries of LACMA, perhaps in the near future Mr. Govan will hire Blackwater Worldwide to provide protection for the museum’s so-called “BP Grand Entrance“.

Spiral Jetty, Big Oil, & LACMA

Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson

[ Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson. 1970. The famous earthwork construction in Utah imperiled by oil drilling. ]


A story by Kirk Johnson titled Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in Utah, appeared in the March 27th edition of the New York Times. The article details how oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake of Utah may threaten Spiral Jetty, the famous earthwork construction created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. Quoting the NYT’s piece:

“A fierce debate, with equal parts art, environmentalism and economics, has erupted over a plan by the state to allow oil drilling about five miles across the lake. The owner of ‘Spiral Jetty,’ the Dia Art Foundation in New York, in an alliance with a conservation group called Friends of Great Salt Lake, says the oil rigs would harm the work’s aesthetic experience. Led by their drumbeat of protest, more than 3,000 e-mail messages, mostly against the drilling plan, were received by the state during a public comment period last month. A decision by the state about whether to let the drilling go forward is expected in April.”

But it’s not just concern over Smithson’s artwork that has made oil drilling in the Great Salt Lake a hot button issue. Environmentalist groups like The Nature Conservatory explain that the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands “provide important nesting and foraging habitat for over 250 species of birds.” In fact the lake is a critical stopover for some six million migrating birds that fly annually from North to South America. Eco-tourists have been flocking to the lake for some of the best bird watching in the United States. It’s difficult to believe that oil drilling will not have a negative impact upon the migratory bird population and the associated booming eco-tourist industry.

The Friends of Great Salt Lake have spearheaded the resistance to the proposed oil drilling by Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, LTD., and the environmental group elicited the help of Mr. Smithson’s widow, artist Nancy Holt, who wrote an appeal to action that resulted in the State of Utah receiving over 3,000 letters protesting the anticipated oil drilling. I too am opposed to the despoiling of the Great Salt Lake area by the oil industry, and I have nothing but admiration for the coalition of art enthusiasts and environmentalists who, through democratic grass roots activism, have stood up to defend Smithson’s artwork as well as the Great Salt Lake environs.

It is interesting to note that the Dia Art Foundation of New York City, which is one of the major organizations opposed to the oil drilling, had Michael Govan as its President and Director from 1994 to 2006. Govan left the foundation in ‘06 to become the Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). One of his first moves as Director of LACMA was to broker a funding arrangement between the museum and BP (British Petroleum). The oil giant agreed to make a “gift” of $25 million dollars to LACMA, and in return the museum’s new entry gate would be christened the “BP Grand Entrance”.

In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times Mr. Govan justified taking BP’s money by saying, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy”, a statement rendered ludicrous by a recent news report published by MSN Money on March 26, 2008. Titled Oil giant backs off green push, reporter Michael Brush’s article draws attention to the fact that BP’s “energy production declined 3% in 2007, and operating profits were down 6.4%”, which has “brought growing pressure from analysts to build oil reserves fast.” As a result BP is beginning to tap Canada’s oil sands, vast tracts of land in Alberta and Saskatchewan that contain a “hydrocarbon-rich mixture of bitumen, sand, water and clay” (….) These huge deposits give Canada the second-largest petroleum holdings in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia.”

As the MSN Money report points out, “producing oil from tar sands requires so much energy that it creates three to five times as much carbon dioxide as production from wells.” The extraction process “requires roads and pipelines that slice up forests - a huge impact on the local ecosystem.” And “production of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide linked to mining tar sands has caused a spike in acid rain in Western Canada.”

Commenting on BP’s move to extract oil from Canadian sand, Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council is quoted in the MSN Money article as having said, “There was this one shining moment where they (BP) looked like they were going to be the good guys, and they’ve just rapidly moved away from it. (….) This is an issue of how they portray themselves in the media compared to what they are doing to impact the rest of the world. They could live up to the image they portray. But they chose not to.” LACMA’s Michael Govan should pay attention to those words and return the $25 million he accepted from BP.

Federal Agents Raid California Museums

On Jan. 24, 2008, Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Agents also conducted a raid on the Silk Roads Gallery of L.A. Looking for stolen antiquities smuggled out of China, Thailand, Myanmar, and pilfered from Native American sites, dozens of Federal agents blocked entry to the museums, serving warrants to museum officials that authorized searches of museum computer archives and records, as well as offices, storage spaces and galleries.

Feds raid LACMA - photo by Nick Ut

[ On Jan. 24, 2008, Federal agents bar entry to LACMA with a security barrier while serving search warrants to museum officials. You can view other photos of the raids at the Los Angeles Times photo gallery. AP photograph by Nick Ut.]


The raids were part of an ongoing, five-year long, Federal undercover investigation into an alleged smuggling ring that sought to profit from stolen artifacts. The Feds contend that a smuggler supplied the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery with looted antiquities, the gallery owners would then sell the works to clients who knew the objects were stolen - providing the dishonest buyers with exaggerated appraisals of worth. The payback came when the gallery owners arranged to have the purchased artworks donated to museums - with the thieves enjoying the inflated tax deductions made for the “gifts.” Unbeknownst to the gallery owners, a “client” they were selling stolen objects to was an undercover Federal agent.

The New York Times called the raids and the investigation they sprang from, “a startling development”, and the Los Angeles Times reported the raids “suggest that the involvement of art institutions in the purchase of looted objects is far more extensive than recent high-profile scandals have indicated.” The paper also mentioned “the warrants served Thursday show prosecutors have carefully laid a foundation for the possible indictment of museum staffers allegedly complicit in the looting schemes.”

LACMA director Michael Govan, held a news conference after the raids to affirm the museum’s complete cooperation with the Federal authorities. Govan admitted LACMA had “about 60 objects” in its collection that are related to the ongoing investigation, but according to the New York Times, “he also defended the museum’s process for reviewing potential donations.” Seems that process is in need of a slight tune up. It looks like a season of calamity has descended upon Mr. Govan. The Federal investigation, combined with billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad deciding to keep his massive modern art collection instead of bequeathing it to LACMA, is most likely not the “Happy New Year” the museum director was looking forward to.

Meanwhile, the Federal investigation of the smuggling ring has expanded. In a Jan. 29th article titled “Federal probe of stolen art goes national”, Los Angeles Times staff reporters Jason Felch and Mike Boehm wrote that, “the same day federal agents raided four Southern California museums suspected of displaying stolen art, authorities also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. The newly revealed allegations have significantly raised the stakes of the ongoing investigation, suggesting that a suspected network of illegal art dealers extended far beyond Southern California and included objects far more valuable than those previously revealed.”

Another Oil Slick at LACMA

In March of this year I wrote an exposé that uncovered the relationship between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the multinational oil company, BP (British Petroleum). LACMA is expanding and renovating its facilities, and it has taken $25 million dollars from BP as a “gift” towards the projected cost of the reconstruction, which is $191 million. The payoff is that LACMA will dedicate its massive new entrance gate to the oil giant, calling it - the “BP Grand Entrance.” It was the new Director and Chief Executive Officer of LACMA, Michael Govan, who actively sought the financial support of BP, saying in a Los Angeles Times interview, “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.” The President of Houston-based BP America, Bob Malone, said the oil giant’s donation represented a “commitment to the arts.”

On October 25th, 2007, international news media reported that BP agreed to pay a whopping $373 million in an out of court settlement designed to stop U.S. Justice Department criminal indictments against the global energy giant’s law-breaking in the United States. Essentially the settlement stipulates that BP must pay for damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the company be placed on probation by the Justice Department for a period of three years. The federal government will continue extensive investigations into the energy company’s wrongdoings, and the Justice Department has made it clear that BP is “not beyond prosecution” when it comes to further possible charges. The Associated Press quoted Acting Attorney General, Peter Keisler, saying; “Obviously, the actions we’re responding to today reflect that there were some very serious problems within the company.”

Federal investigators have charged BP with a number of crimes; inflating the price of propane gas and overcharging U.S. consumers millions of dollars - ignoring government safety standards, leading to an enormous explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery plant that took the lives of 15 workers and injured 170 others - and ignoring government warnings which lead to a spill of 201,000 gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the nation’s largest oil field.

According to the deal with the U.S. Justice Department, BP must pay $303.5 million in punitive fines for conspiring to fix propane prices in 2003 and 2004. They are also required to pay a $50 million fine and plead guilty to a felony for the explosion at their Texas refinery, and BP must also pay $20 million in criminal fines for their oil pipeline leaks in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. ABC News quoted Granta Nakayama of the Environmental Protection Agency as saying; “BP committed serious environmental crimes in our two largest states - with terrible consequences for people and the environment.”

BP America president, Bob Malone, said of the deal with the Justice Department; “These agreements are an admission that, in these instances, our operations failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law - for that, we apologize.” Perhaps those are the very words that should be chiseled into the “BP Grand Entrance” that LACMA Director Michael Govan is having constructed for the museum. And speaking of apologies - when will Govan express regret for turning LACMA’s good name and cherished art treasures into a public relations vehicle for BP? When will Govan return the $25 million dollars BP donated to LACMA? - a “gift” that was nothing more than the oil giant’s attempt to “greenwash” its reputation?

Rep. John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, disapproved of the lenient fines BP must pay regarding the Texas refinery charge. The good Senator from Michigan said; “I note with curiosity that when an average citizen commits a felony it usually leads to a prison sentence. Yet, apparently, when a big oil company commits a felony that causes 15 deaths, it pays a criminal penalty equal to less than a day’s corporate profits.” To the Senator’s penetrating remark, I can only add - “And then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will construct a new building named in honor of the corporate criminal.”

Proposed architectural design for the BP Grand Entrance at LACMA.

[ Illustration for my proposed architectural design for the "BP Grand Entrance" at LACMA. My project calls for a monumental archway constructed of clear plastic - which of course is made from petroleum. The portico will encase a 200 ft. tall functioning oil derrick that actually pumps oil. Every hour on the hour, the derrick will spout a geyser of crude.]

[UPDATE: Smithsonian Balks over Oil Money - It’s instructive to note that LACMA has enthusiastically taken money from BP, while the nation’s prestigious Smithsonian Institution recently shelved plans to accept $5 million from the American Petroleum Institute - the national trade association representing some 400 companies in the oil and natural gas industry. In a Nov. 13, 2007, article titled Smithsonian Questions $5 Million In Oil Money, the Washington Post reported that: "The Smithsonian Institution has taken the rare step of putting on hold a $5 million donation from the American Petroleum Institute after two members of the museum complex's Board of Regents, including a U.S. senator, balked at accepting oil-industry money for a major initiative on the world's oceans." Chairman of the regents’ executive committee, Roger Sant, a businessman who made his millions as an energy industry executive, told the Post: "I think it is in everyone’s mind that oceans and oil are not consistent." Well… almost everyone - apparently LACMA’s Director, Michael Govan, and the museum’s board of directors, haven’t heard that oil and water don’t mix.

On Nov. 17, 2007, the Washington Post reported that the American Petroleum Institute withdrew its funding to the Smithsonian in a tersely worded one sentence letter that simply read: "The purpose of this letter is to inform you that API is rescinding the Aug. 29, 2007, offer of financial support for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Ocean Initiative, effective immediately." ]

LACMA & the Spin Doctors from Hell

I’m not sure just when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the services of the high-powered public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. (H&K), but I first noticed the PR firm’s name included as a media contact on an official LACMA press release dated Feb. 3, 2006. The announcement was for the appointment of Michael Govan as the museum’s new Director and Chief Executive Officer (see the .pdf file.) When LACMA made known on March 6, 2007, that oil giant BP had given $25 million to the museum - LACMA’s official press release again included H&K as a media contact (.pdf file.)

[Update: LACMA has removed the above cited .pdf documents from their press release archive. However, one document from their online public records, the .pdf file titled LACMA Special Events, clearly lists Hill and Knowlton under the museum's "Partial Client List" on page four. The original Feb. 3., 2006 press release regarding Michael Govan having become director of LACMA was replaced with an updated bio on Sept. 30, 2010 which makes no mention of Govan having struck a $25 million funding deal with oil giant BP, nor of Govan agreeing to christen the newly constructed museum entry way, "The BP Grand Entrance."]

I have absolutely no objections to LACMA using a PR firm to effectively promote itself, nor would I criticize an individual for doing the same - but Hill and Knowlton, Inc. has a long and controversial roster of clients that I think readers of my web log should be aware of. A leading public relations corporation, H&K has 71 offices in 40 countries, with specialists in “crisis & issues management” as well as the oil and petrochemical industry. After reading some of the following, you may wonder what on earth has been going on behind closed doors at LACMA’s board of directors meetings.

Hill and Knowlton, Inc. became infamous over its dealings with the tobacco industry in the 1950s. In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice finally sued the tobacco industry for $280 billion in damages, arguing that in 1953, the five major cigarette manufacturers met with “public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases.” In August of 2006, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the tobacco companies had violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking - however, the judge did not order the monetary penalty proposed by the government (the case is currently being appealed.)

Lord of the lies; how Hill and Knowlton’s Robert Gray pulls Washington’s strings, written by Susan B. Trento and published by the Washington Monthly in Sept, 1992, detailed much of the PR firm’s skullduggery under the chairmanship of Gray. Trento wrote that for 30 years, Hill and Knowlton, “set a standard - not a particularly high one for what Washington lobbying can get away with (….) Whether the client was Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier or the Church of Scientology, the only criterion was that the client paid - and paid well.” Sheila Tate, a former H&K employee and later Nancy Reagan’s press secretary, described the PR firm as a “company without a moral rudder” for its controversial client list.

The Center for Public Integrity published a 1992 report titled, The Torturers’ Lobby, describing the use of PR firms by repressive regimes (view in .pdf or html.) Hill and Knowlton, Inc. topped the list of earnings, making $14 million in one year by representing governments that abuse human rights like China, Indonesia, Egypt, Peru, and Turkey. Human Rights groups have long condemned Turkey for abusing its citizens of Kurdish origin, but the center’s report stated that H&K earned $1.2 million from Turkey between 1991-1992. H&K even took the Chinese government as a client soon after its massacre of dissidents at Tiananmen Square in 1989 (source: Human Rights in China website - .pdf.) In May of 2005, Agence France-Presse reported that H&K signed a $600,000 contract with the government of Uganda, to “improve Uganda’s stained reputation as a human rights abuser and democracy laggard.”

In December of 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked 40 tons of lethal gas over the city, in what was to become the world’s worst industrial disaster. Some 8,000 people died in the first few days, and approximately 20,000 are believed to have perished in the aftermath. Today over 120,000 people in Bhopal continue to suffer health problems as a result of the disaster - blindness, cancer, serious birth-defects, and other ailments. A proper clean up of the plant and its environs has never taken place, and in Nov., 2004, the BBC reported that thousands of tons of toxic chemicals are still loose on the ground or held in open containers. Hill & Knowlton, Inc. handled Union Carbide’s PR troubles during the disaster, and H&K’s Executive Vice President, Richard C. Hyde, lead the “crisis management” team that assisted Union Carbide.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is currently the public relations firm for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the organization that represents the nuclear power industry. In a February 6th, 2006, Wall Street Journal article titled, Nuclear Industry Plans Ad Push For New Plants (Sub req’d), the paper reported that the “nation’s nuclear-power industry is set to roll out a multiyear advertising campaign to build public support for a generation of new plants” - and the ad campaign which promotes a “nuclear renaissance” is run by H&K. In a June 2006 editorial, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the PR firm helped the NEI form the so-called “Clean and Safe Energy Coalition,” a front group that would sing the praises of nuclear energy for the corporate media. The Review wrote, “We just find it maddening that Hill & Knowlton, which has an $8 million account with the nuclear industry, should have such an easy time working the press.” That multi-million dollar contract stipulates “pre-empting and offsetting criticism from opponents.”

While we’re on the subject - when the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had a partial core meltdown on March 28th, 1979, it was Hill & Knowlton, Inc. executive, Robert Dilenschneider, who was brought in to handle PR for the plant’s operators, Metropolitan Edison.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is probably most notorious for its work with the government of Kuwait in organizing and running the propaganda campaign aimed at getting the U.S. public to support military action against Iraq. On August 2nd, 1990, Saddam Hussein began Iraq’s invasion and 7 month-long occupation of neighboring Kuwait. Within a few days the Iraqis had completely overrun the Kuwaiti Armed Forces, and with more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and 700 tanks on Kuwait’s territory, the Kuwaiti Royal Family escaped to next door Saudi Arabia.

From exile the Kuwaiti government would employ as many as 20 PR firms in its campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion (source: O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991 - “H&K leads PR charge in behalf of Kuwaiti cause.”) But the Kuwaitis would ultimately pay $10.8 million to H&K for a massive media blitz. On October 10, 1990, H&K orchestrated the appearance of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as Nayirah, before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington. The youngster wept as she told of her harrowing experience in occupied Kuwait City. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

After Nayirah’s emotional testimony, President George H.W. Bush quoted her many times in addresses to the American people. For instance, at a Nov. 1st., 1990 Republican rally in Massachusetts, he said of the Iraqi invaders, “They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism. In one hospital, they pulled 22 premature babies from their incubators, sent the machines back to Baghdad, and all those little ones died.” At an Oct. 16th, 1990, fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, he said of the Iraqi occupiers, “I don’t mean to be overly shocking here - but let me just mention some reports, firsthand reports. At a hospital, Iraqi soldiers unplugged the oxygen to incubators supporting 22 premature babies. They all died. And then they shot the hospital employees.” A number of Senators also used Nayirah’s testimony in the same way, and the shocking story was repeated innumerable times in radio, television, and newspaper reports.

After the war, investigations found absolutely no evidence to support the incubator claims. As it turned out, Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, and her father was Kuwait’s Ambassador to the U.S., Saud Nasir Al-Sabah. The youngster never worked at the al-Addan hospital and under no circumstances had been witness to the butchery she recounted. Nayirah’s story was completely fabricated, and H&K’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached the teenager in false testimony.

The record of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. as a dodgy and immoral PR firm is extensive, and itemizing their misconduct and crimes is beyond the scope of this web log. The facts I’ve researched and presented here are public knowledge - one can only imagine the skeletons in the closet. If you take the time to conduct your own research, you’ll find information on many other controversies surrounding H&K. In 1983 it managed PR for the building materials manufacturers, U.S. Gypsum, aimed at downplaying the connection between asbestos and health problems. The firm took an estimated $5 million from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990 to wage an anti-abortion PR campaign. In 2004 H&K began working with Wal-Mart in order to rehabilitate the image of the Union busting retail company. The larger question is, why did LACMA take into service a high-powered corporate PR firm so tainted with unseemliness?

Conceivably the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in employing Hill and Knowlton, Inc. merely wanted to increase its profile with the general public. Or perhaps, realizing that their relationship with a major oil company would be seen as a liability, the vaunted arts institution decided to implement damage control - my suspicions point to the latter. What LACMA might be paying H&K for its services is not public knowledge, but the PR firm does not come cheap. Likewise, while it’s not known exactly what H&K is doing for LACMA, insiders in the lobbying and public relations industry have a saying, “the best PR is invisible.”

So the next time you’re exposed to a radio spot, television news segment, magazine article, or glowing press review extolling LACMA and its big oil benefactor, you might be consuming propaganda from hired guns Hill and Knowlton, Inc. When you read that Michael Govan, the director and CEO of LACMA, praised oil giant BP for “their commitment to sustainable energy,” you may have the feeling he was coached by the PR firm - and you just might be right.

Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New

On February 1st, 2007, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art CEO Michael Govan and postmodernist “King of Kitsch” Jeff Koons, were featured speakers at a LACMA public event billed as a conversation on “the role of artists in shaping the museum of the future.” At the event the duo publicly announced plans to erect Koons’ Train, an enormous structure made of an actual 70-foot fabricated steam locomotive hanging from a massive 161-foot heavy construction crane.

To be located at LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance” on Wilshire Boulevard, the suspended train will spin its wheels, whistle and blow-out steam three times a day; and according to Govan, “The beautiful thing is that we would see it from the 10 freeway and from downtown” - which to those not familiar with L.A. means the structure will be visible from most points in the sprawling metropolis. New York Arts Magazine reported that Govan compared the project to the Eiffel Tower, “expressing hope that the piece would become a landmark for Los Angeles.”

Train - by Koons

[ Train - Model by Jeff Koons Production / Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane, is to be placed in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." ]

If Train reminds you of the works created by the Dadaists or Surrealists, or perhaps the readymades constructed by Marcel Duchamp - think again. The aforementioned were outsiders who used art to blow-up the traditions and power centers of the elite art world. Koons on the other hand is an insider who is wedded to privilege, as is evident from the $1 million given to LACMA by the Annenberg Foundation, funds to be used in conducting engineering studies on the feasibility of Koons’ proposed construction. Train also has the backing of billionaire and LACMA trustee Eli Broad, who has donated $60 million to LACMA for the construction of The Broad Contemporary Art Museum - which by the way will house Broad’s collection of twenty Jeff Koons originals.

Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, “A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.” There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think! However, there is great irony in Train - though certainly Koons, Govan, Broad, and their supporters are hopelessly unaware of this. The U.S. passenger train and light-rail industry was effectively destroyed through the combined rise of private automobiles, diesel buses, the development of an Interstate Highway System, and the use of trucks and planes for freight transport. Naturally, oil companies and their supporting industries benefited enormously from this shift. The irony is that in order to see Koons’ ludicrous steam locomotive one must first pass through the “BP Grand Entrance” - LACMA’s paean to the power and glory of big oil. Though unintentional, Koons’ Train gives us a representation of the U.S. passenger train industry crucified by the might of the petroleum empire.

More than 25 years ago, art critic Robert Hughes helped to change the way people thought about modern art through his TV series, The Shock of the New. The series was revised by Hughes in 2004 to reflect current realities, and broadcast on the BBC that same year as, The New Shock of the New. Here’s what Hughes had to say about Koons:

“We decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush’s America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan’s. There may be worse things waiting in the wings (never forget that morose observation of Milton’s on the topography of Hell: “And in the lowest depth, a lower depth”) but for the moment they aren’t apparent, which isn’t to say that they won’t crawl, glistening like Paris Hilton’s lip-gloss, out of some gallery next month. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.”

Condemnation of Koons abounds, but one of the finest critiques made of him and what he represents, can be find in D.S. Baker’s February 1993 article, Jeff Koons And The Paradox Of A Superstar’s Phenomenon, a must read for anyone interested contemporary art:

“As Superstar, as real capitalist (a former stockbroker), as real playboy with sex object (see Koons’ series Made in Heaven), Koons inverts Warhol’s position. Instead of being the alienated artist who mimics commodity relations, Koons himself becomes an authentic reified creation, a Superstar. In doing so, he negates any distance from celebrity and the culture industry. Where Warhol could merely declare that he was all surface, it is Koons who officially becomes homogeneous with commodity society - pure surface. Rather than making art from some as-yet-unincorporated enclave, Koons is making art from within the structures of institutional art, as part and parcel of the culture industry.”

The above excerpt from Baker’s article mentioned the series, Made in Heaven, which in my opinion is the best introduction to a vapid artist steeped in narcissism and shallowness. In 1991 Koons married Italian porn-star turned politician, Ilona Staller. Being a shameless self-publicist, Koons had himself photographed naked with his wife engaged in uninhibited sex - the stills becoming the basis for the artist’s Made in Heaven suite of paintings and sculptures. Koons’ had the photos printed in oil based inks on canvas, and insists these abominations are “paintings.” No doubt Billionaire tycoons Eli Broad and François Pinault - who have made the works of Koons a cornerstone of their collections - would agree (You can see the Made in Heaven series here - but be careful, adults only!) In a 1986 interview conducted with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Koons was asked what he thought of advertising, since his works are largely based upon corporate media images, Koons responded:

“It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: ‘Here’s to good friends!’ It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media (…) I believe in advertisement and media completely. My art and my personal life are based in it.”

Koons supposedly represents the “best and brightest” from the national cultural scene - a sad “fact” I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; “Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’” In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano

[ An architectural drawing showing Koons‘ Train in front of the so-called "BP Grand Entrance." The Broad Contemporary Art Museum is on the left, with the LACMA Ahmanson on the right. Drawing from the architecture firm of Renzo Piano. ]

Another troubling aspect to Koons being placed front and center at the new LACMA is the effect Train will have on the overall look of the museum, giving it the aura of a commercial entertainment theme park like Hollywood’s Universal Citywalk, confirming the clichés people have about culture in a place like Los Angeles. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was initially selected to redesign the museum, but when his plans proved too costly, he was fired and replaced by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. As Piano drew up plans for the renovated museum, LACMA’s director Michael Govan began to interject his own ideas for the look and feel of the revamped institution - bringing the wretched Koons into the picture. L.A. Times staff writer Christopher Hawthorne correctly but politely referred to this as “pulling focus” from Piano’s graceful designs. Hawthorne wrote that Koons’ Train carries:

“…heavy symbolic weight and a sensibility that couldn’t be more different from Piano’s work. The architect’s recent projects stress rationality, the careful manipulation of light and a seamless, elegant marriage of technology and design. The train, which hangs perpendicular to the ground, seems to be hurtling straight at the pavement, ready to smash all those ideas to bits. In part - and there is really no getting around this fact - the new elements also serve to camouflage Piano’s architecture.”

Koons is deficient in his capacity to draw, paint, or sculpt - and like many other postmodernists, he contracts others to actually create his artworks. The manufacture of his objects is handled by a small army of studio assistants at his outfit, Jeff Koons Productions. In the previously mentioned Journal of Contemporary Art interview, he admitted that “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities.” Apologists for this type of art production say that its no different than the medieval or renaissance art workshops where apprentices labored under the direction of a master artist; but while the masters of old delegated certain tasks to other artists or assistants, they were more than mere directors, they were intimately involved in the actual work. That could even be said for a modern like Andy Warhol and his factory. The lowliest paint mixer in a renaissance workshop would have been a better draftsman than Koons - but these days, not having the “necessary abilities” is no impediment to becoming an art star with a lucrative career. Nevertheless, Koons is no master artist, and it is an embarrassment that LACMA actively promotes him.